The Box Cutter Problem: How Do You Stop Ideas?


India was shocked by the violent attacks in Mumbai this past November. The very nature of urban life makes us vulnerable to this kind of violence. (Adrian Fisk / MCT)

Published: January 29, 2009

In the first decade of the 21st century, international relations shook, economies cringed, cities cowered, towers crumbled and thousands perished. All because of 19 guys with box cutters and a plan.

9/11 wasn’t entirely terrorism on a budget. The hijackers needed money to pay for flight school and to pay for life in the West while they prepared. Their plot was, at points, elaborate and highly coordinated, and was closely connected to a worldwide organization of money and ideology. Still, the basics of it—of 19 guys with box cutters changing the world—that was deadly simple, felt horribly accessible.

It took a unique and new sort of imagination to conceive of using planes as missiles, or to conceive of the huge impact such an attack would have. Once it happened, however, 9/11 unleashed onto our civilization’s consciousness the terrifying idea that you don’t, like a James Bond villain, need fancy technology or vast resources; all you need is to be crazy enough, ruthless enough and lucky enough, and you too can create destruction that can change the world.

In our national obsession with terrorism following 9/11, we devised plans even simpler and more terrifying than flying planes into buildings: driving car bombs into chemical plants, mixing noxious combustible liquids in the confined spaces of trains and planes and going on suicidal shooting sprees in malls and movie theatres. In Mumbai we saw such thinking in action. Our civilization has many discontents. How long do we really think it will be before another cell or cult or random individual just takes one of these ideas and runs with it? After that, how long do we think it will be before all of them do?

I believe that we can adapt to climate change. I believe that economies will fluctuate, will crash and recover and crash again. I believe that nations will always rattle their sabers and occasionally clash. One way or another, we will survive all these challenges. But I can’t shake off the suspicion that in the coming decades of the 21st century our civilization will be held hostage more than once by those willing to perpetrate endless violence in the simplest of ways.

You know what the scary part is? We can’t stop them.

We can watch vigilantly for the signs of bomb making and other “suspicious activity.” We can hunt down known terrorists and those that fund them. We can stop the spread and trade of nuclear weapons and destructive biological and chemical agents. We can pursue programs that will relieve the pressures of poverty and social injustice that breed violent discontent. We can even try to engage in real discussions with Islamism and other militant ideologies until we convince them that innocent people need not be their enemy. But in the end none of this will solve the problem for good.

There will always be another group of discontents, another set of grievances, often impossible to address. There will always be demagogues capable of making the ideological or theological innovations necessary to justify the mass slaughtering of innocents. No matter how much we do to make the people of this world happy, there will always be those who simply can’t stand our civilization. Some of them will turn violent, and many of those that do will be inspired by the simple efficiency of 19 guys with a plan.

Call it the Box Cutter Problem: as long as there are those who wish to do our society harm, there will always be ways for terrorists to cause fear and death on a massive scale. Now that 9/11 has released this genie, it can’t be put away again. Ideas can’t be stopped or fought or even contained the way a country or organization might be, and ideas like this one can be very dangerous.

This column doesn’t have a happy ending. I’m scared. I think we all should be. This is the dark side of the future we are passing into. There is no solution to the Box Cutter Problem. It is part of the human experience now, and we can’t stop it. All we can do is trudge on and hope the storm turns away. It’s going to be a dangerous world. Best love it while we can.